Borrowing from a coping mechanism we used earlier this year to find some joy in our darkest hours, the young Vols had enough stamina left at the end of October to run the table in November, and now have an opportunity to earn their biggest victory of the season in the Music City Bowl. Beating North Carolina would be the most impressive feat for this team collectively, but also for Tyler Bray individually. Bray has been the poster child for Tennessee's transformation over the last four weeks of the regular season, and with him the future certainly appears bright in Knoxville. But Carolina will be a step up from what he's seen so far...and I for one am thankful.
As much fun as it might've been to see the Vols play Michigan on New Year's Day in the Gator Bowl, I'm not sure how much we would've learned. It would've been entertaining, no doubt, and college football fans would've enjoyed seeing two future superstars in Bray and Denard Robinson in a shootout...but since Michigan is 111th nationally in pass defense, even Bray's best performance of the year wouldn't have meant much.
That's because we've already seen what Tyler can do against teams with poor secondaries. And what he's done has been very impressive:
- South Carolina (2nd half): 9 of 15, 159 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT - 107th pass defense
- Memphis: 19 of 33, 325 yards, 5 TD, 0 INT - 116th pass defense
- Ole Miss: 18 of 34, 323 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT - 101st pass defense
- Vanderbilt: 16 of 27, 232 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT - 76th pass defense
- Kentucky: 20 of 38, 354 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT - 18th pass defense
(Kentucky's numbers are incredibly inflated by their performance against Western Kentucky, Akron, and Charleston Southern, giving up less than 130 passing yards in each game. Against SEC foes, the Cats gave up 218 passing yards per game, which would put them 59th nationally. Bray did throw for more yards on them than anyone else.)
Bray has excelled in his first four starts - all he can do is play the next opponent on the schedule, it's not his fault (and definitely worked to his advantage) they weren't the best defenses in the world, and he was everything this team needed him to be in November. In four and a half games, he already owns every freshman passing record at UT.
Now it's time to see what he can be when the competition steps up a notch.
North Carolina is 37th nationally against the pass - not an elite defense, but definitely an improvement over what Bray has seen so far. Unlike Kentucky, the Tar Heels have been consistently solid against the pass, and are yet to give up 300+ yards in a game this year. Their worst performance came against an East Carolina team that attempted 52 passes, earning 283 yards but 3 interceptions. The Tar Heels are tied for 21st nationally with 16 picks on the year (led by senior DB Da'Norris Searcy with 4) - the strength of their pass defense is definitely in the secondary and not up front, as the Heels average just 2.08 sacks per game.
Still, freshmen quarterbacks and offensive linemen can make an above average defense look great. Up front, the Vols will benefit from having more time with the same five guys on the field, including all the freshmen who feel more like sophomores at this point.
We could say the same about Bray, but it's also true that true freshmen QBs usually play at least one game that reminds you that they are, in fact, true freshmen. Casey Clausen looked like he would win multiple Heismans once he took over the starting role as a freshman against Alabama in 2000...until he ran into Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl, and went 7 of 25 with 3 INTs. Erik Ainge showed unbelievable poise in beating Florida in his first start...then threw 4 INTs two weeks later against Auburn.
Granted, North Carolina didn't finish the year undefeated like that Auburn team did, and it won't be frigid and snowy the way it was in Dallas ten years ago (current forecast for kickoff: upper 40s, 40% chance of rain). I hope Bray had his freshman performance against Vanderbilt, and that's as bad as it's going to get...but Carolina will test him more than he has been all year.
It's not pass/fail for Bray, who's got plenty of time left in an orange uniform to impress us. But it's also true that there are just some things we won't know about this kid until September 17, 2011 in Gainesville. The Music City Bowl isn't his first test, and it certainly won't be his last or his most difficult. It's the next step for our freshman QB.
Will he find success in Nashville? If he does, the wheels of the hype machine will start turning in places outside Knoxville. I'm not suggesting Bray is going to win the Heisman next fall, or even be a serious candidate...but if/when Cam Newton and Ryan Mallett turn pro, who's the best quarterback in the SEC in 2011? It's a conversation that currently includes Stephen Garcia and Aaron Murray...but a big performance in the bowl game certainly puts Bray in that group as well.
If the Vols go as Bray goes, I'm eager to see what he can do against stiffer competition. Here are a few other things I'm eager to see:
How much will we rely on Tauren Poole, and what will it say about next season?
Tennessee is 100th nationally in rushing offense, but Tauren Poole is a respectable 47th individually and 5th among SEC tailbacks at 82.8 yards per game. Sack yardage has really hurt the Vols this season, but the youth and inexperience up front are one more reason why we should be impressed with what Poole has done.
Early on, the Vols relied on him more heavily, and don't forget that he responded really well against Oregon (162 yards on 23 carries) and LSU (109 yards on 24 carries). Those were grown man performances against good teams (and a great LSU defense) running behind a totally inexperienced offensive line, with Matt Simms at quarterback. Those two games alone were enough to make us believe in him.
Once Bray got the starting nod, his carries decreased, averaging only 17 touches per game in November. He still got the job done, going for 101, 107, and 99 yards before Kentucky slowed him a little bit for just 59 in the finale. But his yards also came in late bursts, against defense that were worn down and had been torched by Bray for the majority of the day.
How will the Vols use him next season? Will he continue to see spot duty early, and then become the closer late? Derek Dooley has expressed displeasure with his team's inability to run, and has gone as far as to question why Jim Chaney would even call a run play. Without question, Poole is capable and the Vols will need him next season. Will the Vols go to him more than 17 times per game in this offense, with Bray back there slinging it? Or will he continue to be merely the change-of-pace option, good for quick bursts and wearing teams out at the end of the game? North Carolina is solid all-around defensively - 37th against the pass, 36th against the run, 32nd overall - so it'll be interesting to see if the Vols go all-in with Bray, or make more of an effort to get yards via the ground game.
Is the late-season pass rush the real thing?
Again, the schedule helped...but the Vols had 10 sacks in the first 8 games, and 13 in the last 4. The push came mostly from the front four: Malik Jackson leads the team with 5, with Gerald Williams (3.5) and Chris Walker (3.0) just behind him. Tennessee has struggled to get consistent pressure on the quarterback for the last five years - if the Vols get just two against Carolina, it'll be our highest season sack total since 2005.
The Heels have almost had as much trouble protecting T.J. Yates as the Vols have with Simms and Bray - the Vols are 112th nationally with 37 sacks allowed, but Carolina is right behind them with 34 allowed.
Yates is a gamer - the senior was second in the ACC with 265.3 yards per game, and is 7th nationally in completion percentage at 67.6%. He's put up a number of impressive performances this year, including:
- 28 of 46, 412 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs against the vaunted LSU defense; though many of those yards came against the mustang package late in the game, to play that well without so many pieces around him in the opener was truly impressive
- 24 of 35, 439 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs at Florida State in a 37-35 UNC win. Despite a late season "slide" that included close wins over William & Mary and Duke and losses to NC State and Virginia Tech, this win on November 6 proves this team cannot be taken lightly.
- 33 of 44, 411 yards, 2 TDs and 0 INTs in a 29-25 loss to NC State.
Likewise, Yates has really struggled against good defenses:
- 12 of 21, 140 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs, 5 sacks in a 33-10 loss to Miami. UNC was also 2 for 12 on third down.
- 18 of 33, 197 yards, 0 TDs, 4 INTs, 4 sacks in a 26-10 loss to Virginia Tech. Considering VT won the turnover battle in this game 6-0, it's amazing they kept it as close as they did.
When given time, Yates can pick a defense apart. When pressured, mistakes are out there. So is the pass rush we saw from the Vols an illusion created by a weaker schedule, or a function of finally getting the right group of four on the field together (specifically Malik Jackson at tackle)? The key to stopping Carolina's offense also involves...
Can the Vols continue to be opportunistic on defense?
Here again, it's easy to knock the November schedule, but the Vols did see a pair of good offenses in Ole Miss and Kentucky...and held them both to just 14 points.
The Vol defense didn't have the same sort of instant transformation the offense saw with Bray...but they did get a lot better at bending but not breaking in the month of November.
The Vols ended the regular season +5 in turnover margin, but were +6 in the month of November. The Vols also gave up less than 400 yards in all four wins, after giving up 400+ in the previous four losses and the overtime win against UAB.
If the September/October Tennessee defense shows itself, the Vols can't get to the quarterback and aren't opportunistic with turnovers...Yates could have a field day. But if the Vols have truly improved, and they put forth the same effort they showed in November against a solid Carolina offense...Tennessee won't have to rely solely on Bray and the passing game to win the game.
Which brings us to our final question...
Is Justin Wilcox a distraction?
Carolina may torch the Vol defense simply because they're better than we are. But if the Vols play especially poorly and then Wilcox takes off for Texas, people are going to wonder.
As meticulous as Derek Dooley is (and as professional as I assume Wilcox to be), I don't think this will be an issue from their end. But what about the players? Everyone associated with Tennessee is used to change and adversity, but will it be an issue in preparation here?
Tennessee needed a spark, and Tyler Bray provided it. We weren't sure how effective that change would be heading into the Ole Miss game, and we got a 52-14 victory. We knew we'd need our best game of the year to reach our goal, and we got it with the win over Kentucky.
Now we come to the transition point between Year One and Year Two. The season is already successful, and Dooley has done a good job...but if the Vols lose or worse, get blown out, and then it's followed by Wilcox heading to Texas...the momentum we've been building will face a serious reality check. If Bray struggles, we'll still be optimistic about his future, but it will certainly be tempered. And perhaps all of that is as it should be, with a 6-6 record, a true freshman quarterback, and a coach in his first year potentially looking at a new defensive coordinator.
But tens of thousands of Vol fans will head to Nashville expecting something else. It happened, to a degree, at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl last year, where Tennessee fans had found a reason to be truly excited again and came to celebrate their team, even in a lower-tier bowl. But last year was also different in some ways: different coach, better opponent, and a more tempered expectation coming into the game - we knew the 2010 Vols were going to struggle a year in advance.
So now with this coach and this quarterback, both of whom are more embraced than their predecessors, we'll take another three hour drive to face an opponent we feel like we should beat. The Vols are riding high, and while we'd all love a blowout in Nashville to put the final seal of approval on Dooley's first season and send expectations through the roof for the future...we'd do well to remember that it's Carolina who's a 2.5 point favorite, and any win would be a good one.
So will a good Carolina team return us to the disappointment of September & October? Or will the November run extend into late December, and carry hope forward all the way to 2011?